The tents are up and the bleachers ready as hundreds of people mill in the cold morning sunshine. They chat with old friends while keeping an indulgent eye on their children, who chase each other over and under plastic tables and up spindly trees, squealing and tossing gravel. Despite the early hour, the air crackles with excitement.
With blue skies above, a homemade concession stand and boisterous children all around, the atmosphere in rural Mexico, Missouri, this morning feels like a harvest festival.
It's a rare harvest festival, however, that features security like this: Just off the county road, vehicles streaming onto the property are stopped at a checkpoint. There, driver's licenses are photocopied, plates are photographed, and a document is proffered for signing: It bans photography, audio or video recording and anything that could be construed as ill will toward the property owners. The threatened penalty for violations? $250,000.
And even beyond the security, there's the noise. Beneath the children's shouts is a cacophony of barking, yapping, howling and whimpering.
It's the sound of more than 800 dogs — and it echoes unceasingly.
This late October gathering on the rural Missouri property of Bonnie and Herman Schindler isn't a festival, and it isn't a fair. It's the end of what the Humane Society of the United States calls Missouri's largest — and, arguably, its most notorious — puppy mill.
Bonnie Schindler is a small, grandmotherly type: She has a voice that undulates like an unsteady rocking chair, loud to soft and back again, with pauses so long between statements that it's unclear whether she's decided to end the sentence early. She can also talk for so long without pause that if a call is dropped, and the person she's talking to calls back, she may still be rattling on.
Schindler refers to her dogs lovingly: Puppies are "babies" and adults are "mothers." She credits the time she spent with them for healing the cancer that invaded five parts of her body and earned a grim prognosis from her doctors.
"When I was so sick, I'd go down and sit in the puppy building with my puppies," she says. "I'd hold them and love them. And I beat it. I told my doctors, 'I don't have time to die. Dying's not in my schedule; I have too many babies to take care of.' And after I beat it, they shook their heads and said, 'You are a miracle.'"
It's when Schindler slips from "babies" and "mothers" — instead referring to them as "production animals" — that things start to feel a little less charming.
Bonnie Schindler and her husband, Herman, are both 75 years old. They've bred and sold dogs in Missouri for almost 50 years. At one point, records show, they had 2,913 dogs, all but a few hundred of them breeding stock.
This fall, they sold all of them. That's the reason hundreds of people flocked to the Schindlers' property on October 29 and 30: Before the couple could retire, they needed to get rid of their stock of 960 breeding dogs — 665 adult dogs and 295 puppies, according to a July 2010 count by the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Missouri has been called the puppy-mill capital of the country for years. One of every three puppies in America was born in Missouri, and almost 1,500 licensed large-scale breeding operations call the state home, along with an estimated 1,500 of their unlicensed, unregulated brethren.
Deserved or not, the Schindlers have become a symbol for those 3,000 or so breeding businesses. And after decades of relatively quiet existence in Missouri, "puppy mills" suddenly became a subject of great controversy this fall.
The so-called Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act was one of only two statewide initiatives on the November ballot. Sponsored and heavily backed by the Humane Society to the tune of more than $2.5 million, Proposition B would require that females be given rest between breeding cycles. It would outlaw the use of stacked cages and wire flooring, rewrite the formula used to determine cage size, require that dogs have unfettered access to both indoor and outdoor areas and ensure regular veterinary care. It would also create a misdemeanor crime of "puppy-mill cruelty," punishable with fines and the immediate confiscation of dogs.
By definition, Prop B would make operations such as the Schindlers' a thing of the past.
Under the old standard, 1992's Animal Care Facilities Act, the only requirements were that dogs be fed and watered every twelve hours, with minimal room for movement in their cages. There was no limit on how many dogs a commercial breeder could own.
Once the new law is implemented, however, breeders will not be allowed to keep more than 50 dogs as breeding stock, much less the 1,000 the Schindlers have kept in recent years.
And so depending on whom you ask, the scene in Mexico that weekend was either a triumph or a tragedy. To those in the dog-breeding world, Bonnie Schindler is a saint, a well-respected breeder who has lobbied on behalf of the Professional Pet Association on Capitol Hill, dined with then-Congressman Roy Blunt and presented workshops on canine pediatrics at conferences for breeders. Betty Dwiggins, another breeder, describes Schindler as "a wonderful person and a wonderful breeder," who works hard to ensure the health and quality of her dogs.
However, this saintly figure may be better known to television viewers as the elderly woman in footage from a July 2010 KTVI-TV (Channel 2) news report. In it, she's wagging a finger from the passenger seat as her husband, Herman, accelerates, hitting the news camera with their vehicle. "This is private property!" she cries, shooing away reporter Chris Hayes.
The Schindlers (and, by extension, their breeding and brokering business, Mettoville Kennels, also known as Teacher's Pets) received a "dishonorable mention" in an October 2010 report from the Humane Society of the United States titled, "Missouri's Dirty Dozen: A Report on Some of the Worst Puppy Mills in Missouri." The Schindlers, the Humane Society concluded, may be running Missouri's largest puppy mill.
"The Schindlers' facility has racked up more than 35 pages of USDA violations in recent years and more than 133 Missouri Department of Agriculture violations, yet they remain both federally and state licensed," reads the report.
Excerpts of a July 2010 USDA inspection report detail emaciated dogs, puncture wounds, oozing sores and a newborn husky whose tail had been bitten off by its mother in the hours immediately after its birth, leaving a raw wound. In another excerpted inspection, USDA personnel reported a burning sensation in their eyes and strong odors emanating from areas where the dogs were housed.
There's no middle ground when it comes to the Schindlers. To hear their friends tell it, they've been demonized by aggressive animal-rights groups, working in concert with a sympathetic media. Their critics say instead that a lax system allowed the couple to prosper for years, even as the dogs in their care suffered.
And how you feel about the Schindlers is likely a good indication of how you feel about Prop B. If you support the couple, you probably think it's an overreaching initiative forced on Missouri by deep-pocketed activists; if you oppose them, you surely believe it's humane and long overdue.
But the truth about the Schindlers, just like almost everything about the dog-breeding business in Missouri, is more complicated than it seems.
In late October, just one week before the election where voters would consider Prop B, a joint poll from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV (Channel 4) showed that 69 percent of Missouri voters supported Prop B, with a 4 percent margin of error. A Post-Dispatch story announcing the results called Prop B a "virtual lock." Not, the paper added, that "protecting puppies is an especially hard sell."
However, on election night, things didn't seem so easy. At the Humane Society of Missouri's election night "party," in fact, there seemed to be little reason for celebration. Early in the night, 63 percent of the vote was against Prop B.
Every two minutes, when new results came in, the room held its collective breath, hoping for the gap to narrow, for the "yes" votes to overtake the "no." For hours, murmurs of "at least we tried" echoed in the room.
"People get confused, and confused voters vote no," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, intoned from the podium. His early-evening pep talk sounded more like a concession speech.
By the end of the night, the "yes" on Prop B votes pulled ahead, but only by 60,320 votes — 51.6 percent of the vote.
The fact that Prop B came so close to failing is somewhat astonishing. The "Yes on B" campaign raised more than $4 million, more than three-quarters of it donated by national organizations and out-of-state boosters. Tony La Russa filmed a TV commercial; actress Betty White lent her voice to recorded phone calls to Missouri voters in the days before the election.
By contrast, the anti-Prop B Alliance for Truth raised a pittance, just shy of $122,000, almost all of it in small donations from Missouri donors. Spending less than 4 percent of their opposition's money, the group still came within arm's reach of defeating the measure.
Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation and a key architect of Prop B, says that about a month before the election, proponents began to worry about what had previously been predicted to be a landslide victory.
"There's just been so much misinformation and fear mongering going on that it has everybody worked up, especially in the rural areas," he says. "There was just a huge campaign to try to give the impression that this was going to end agriculture in the state, and in some of the flyers and brochures that the opposition was putting out, they had a picture of a family with a dog, and the dog was whited out. It said that if Prop B passes, they're going to take your dog away from you."
Some voters he spoke with, Baker says, worried that the price of eggs would rise as a result of the law or that hunting would soon be outlawed.
"As you could tell from the voting results, it really had people in rural communities very concerned and scared. Now they've got their legislators scared, and I do think there will be some serious efforts to repeal or to amend Proposition B."
Indeed, today, it remains to be seen just how much of a mandate Prop B's 3 percent victory margin can command.
When the state legislature's new session gets under way this month in Jefferson City, the provisions of Proposition B could be totally altered or even voided. State Senator Bill Stouffer has already filed a bill to repeal Prop B. And while State Rep. Tom Loehner, the chairman of the House's Agriculture Policy Committee, won't talk to Riverfront Times about any specific plans, he did say that he hopes to "improve" the bill significantly.
After a ballot-initiative process that required thousands of signatures and months of work, plus a hard-fought campaign that ultimately earned support from a majority of Missouri voters, repeal or castration of Prop B would seem to be a great big middle finger to democratic policymaking.
But maybe that isn't such a bad thing. A number of animal experts, including those at the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau, came out against the law. And while some of their complaints may be nitpicky, others appear to raise valid points:
• Prop B creates dozens of new, highly specific regulations — but pays for no additional inspectors to enforce them. Some experts say that a lack of enforcement and manpower have been the chief problems with the current system.
• The proposition clearly targets the dog-breeding industry. Animal shelters and facilities that raise hunting dogs, among other operations, are specifically exempt.
• Larger cage sizes and other new regulations could force massive renovations at most breeding operations. The costs of remodeling could put some breeders out of business. Some workers will almost certainly lose their jobs.
• The architects of Prop B relied on former animal-welfare inspectors and activists to shape the law. They did not consult reputable dog breeders when creating requirements such as giving dogs unfettered access to indoor and outdoor areas at all times — which could lead to exposing dogs to extreme temperatures.
• The creation of a "puppy-mill cruelty" misdemeanor puts more stress on local law enforcement, even as the provision allowing dogs to be seized on the spot could also allow a single inspector with a grudge to ruin a business in a day.
Proponents of Prop B can only swat at some of these complaints. For example, why is it OK to require breeders to adhere to certain standards — even while exempting rescue organizations?
Tim Rickey, the senior director of field investigations and response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, brushes off the question of whether animal shelters should be barred from using wire flooring or stacked cages, just like breeding facilities.
"The comparison is ridiculous — it's not even a comparison," he says. "We're talking about a dog that's going to live its entire life in a two-foot-by-two-foot cage, as opposed to an animal who's rescued off the street and is brought into an animal-welfare organization, which is there to get the animal adopted. It's an animal that will spend a month at most at that facility."
But as for the exclusion of breeders from the drafting process, it's not just hurt feelings and bruised egos at stake — it could be a matter of dog safety.
Dr. Richard Meadows, a shelter-medicine specialist and professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia's College of Veterinary Medicine, worries that, by allowing dogs unfettered access to the outdoors, the new laws could result in them standing outside barking at cars in dangerous weather conditions. Small puppies could wander out and freeze to death in cold weather or dehydrate in sweltering temperatures.
By failing to consult actual practitioners of dog husbandry, the proposition's authors may have missed out on crucial knowledge.
"This will mandate that they can get out there if they want to," Meadows says. "Well, I didn't let my daughters go out and play in bitter cold weather just because they wanted to, either. And they'd be mad at me, but dammit, I control them! I'm responsible for them. Humans need to make those decisions sometimes, and that law doesn't allow for that."
As for the 50-dog limit, Meadows simply says, "Volume can give you a lot of advantages. Just ask Wal-Mart."
Dr. Michael Muhlbauer is a veterinarian and the head of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association's animal-welfare committee. The organization opposed Prop B, saying that its changes would harm licensed breeders and do nothing to punish the more egregious unlicensed ones.
Though he opposed Prop B, Muhlbauer says that he expected it to pass by a dramatic margin.
"When I first saw this, 'the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act,' I'm like, 'Where do I sign?'" he says. "I'm all for this. The way it's worded on the proposition, if you don't vote for it, you're a mean and evil person."
However, when he read the bill, he didn't like what he saw: more rules, instead of more funding and enforcement.
"I think when you see it on the ballot and read just the summary, I'd worry about you if you didn't vote for it. It's just a little snippet there that says, 'Do you think dogs should have food, water, proper housing, veterinary medical care, yes or no?' Well, yes!
"It would be fantastic to stop puppy mills, but just to sit back and create more rules and regulations isn't going to do it."
The scene at the Schindlers' property in October was both better and worse than you might imagine upon learning that nearly 1,000 dogs lived there until recently.
Small dogs peer out through wire doors on little red cages that look like rabbit hutches, dainty paws dancing on wire cage bottoms — some with long nails poking through.
Wooden steps lead up to rows of larger cages with wood-plank floors. Caretakers pace a small platform running the length of these cages, hosing the floorboards to make sure they're free of solid waste or stray pieces of food.
There are plenty of dogs in sight, but no exercise pens or large enclosures for the animals to roam freely. And under all the raised hutches and cages, the dogs' urine and fecal matter falls straight to the ground, piling up on sawdust, to be shoveled away later. The rows are as neat as a well-tended backyard garden, if that garden harvested piles of shit.
Whenever someone walks by, most of the dogs rush to the front of their cages, paws raised against the fencing. In one of the dimly lit sheds, two teenage girls wearing Ugg boots and rolled-down sweatpants coo at a cocker spaniel, tiptoeing through puddles of filthy-looking liquid to wiggle their French- manicured fingernails through the gaps.
"I'm sorry, little guy!" one says in a baby voice.
A ponytailed woman, clad in a SECURITY/NO ON PROP B T-shirt in highlighter yellow, intervenes.
"Jose, tell them they can reach in and peel back their lips and check that they have a good bite," she lectures. "But if they're just holding them, they need to put them down." The girls immediately shuffle off.
The yellow shirts are everywhere, pacing between the puppy sheds in the back, lingering near the sheds with handwritten "no admittance" signs at the back of the property and prowling through the tangles of floor mats and concrete feeding bowls waiting to be sold. (The auctioneer hawking them crows, "If your dogs can chew these up, your dogs are too big!")
Tension is thick. Anticipation for the dog auction, which won't begin until well past noon, crackles between the rescue groups and the breeders who will be competing with them to purchase the dogs.
Carolyn Hadley, of Something Special Castaways Rescue in Kansas City, is the unofficial rescue-group coordinator for the auction. She saw the auction as a rare opportunity for animal-welfare groups to save breeding dogs from a lifetime of drudgery.
"If they're truly closing out and no longer going to breed, if the rescues don't step up and get these dogs, they're only going to go on to other breeders," she explains.
Many of the breeders vying for the Schindlers' dogs are Amish. They wear bonnets and austere dark dresses, while most of the rescue people are wearing green or have scratched a little R on the corner of their auction paddles, a strategy to avoid bidding against other rescuers and driving prices up.
Tensions are also high between the security teams, mostly friends and relatives of the Schindlers, and the rescuers. One yellow-shirted Schindler ally is assigned to tail Hadley, in case she tries to take pictures or start trouble.
But when someone does get caught snapping pictures on her camera phone, it's not Hadley.
Brenda Carabajal, the canine coordinator for the St. Charles Humane Society, sits slumped on a curb, next to Kelly Backes, a volunteer from the same shelter and wife of St. Louis Blues right wing David Backes. Angry members of the security team stand over them, while auctioneer Bob Hughes' amplified voice echoes over the grounds: "The police are on their way."
At that, the proceedings screech to a halt. A few minutes earlier, six-dozen people had followed Hughes around the grounds as he sold off equipment: heaps of wire cages, rows of hutches, a tumble of water bottles and feeders. Now, they've joined the majority of folks, staring at Carabajal and Backes' hunched figures across a clearing near the parking lot.
"We're gonna take her car, we'll take her house, anything until we satisfy that $250,000," Hughes shouts.
Fifteen minutes later, two Audrain Country Sheriff's Office cars roll down the gravel road, dust foaming behind them. Hughes continues his amplified tirade, accusing the women of "agricultural terrorism."
"I don't come into your house, knocking holes in the walls, tearing it all up. This is private property!"
A deputy spends some time gesturing and talking to the women, the security staff and the tall, imposing figure of Herman Schindler. But no handcuffs flash in the light, and no paperwork is filed. Carabajal's phone is returned to her, pictures deleted, and the women are escorted back to their vehicles.
They leave, no dogs in tow, and immediately report to a waiting FOX 2 satellite truck parked just off the Schindlers' property. Backes tells reporter Chris Hayes grimly, "You wouldn't even think of treating your dog like that."
"She gotta buy herself a lawyer," Hughes tells the crowd.
(For the record, neither Carabajal nor the St. Charles Humane Society has been contacted by the Schindlers or faced any legal action since that day.)
Carabajal and Backes aren't the only ones removed from the auction that day, though another ejected offender didn't violate the contract, just the delicate sensibilities of dog breeders.
When a Riverfront Times reporter approaches Herman Schindler, he immediately turns and stalks a few steps away.
He returns with a deputy at his side.
"Can I answer a few questions?" he spits. "I've been down this road before, and I'm gonna ask you something: I'm gonna ask you to leave."
Herman Schindler isn't bluffing: He has, in fact, been down this road before.
For nearly 50 years in the business, he and Bonnie operated without much in the way of scrutiny. Sure, there were inspections from both state and local officials, but they never led to much. On average, the Schindlers were visited twice each year from 2000 to 2006, but no significant discipline ever came from the visits.
Then, a volley of shots were fired: FOX 2 came calling in July, and with it the infamous camera-versus-car clash that cemented the Schindlers' status as public villains. Following the report, the Schindlers were allegedly kicked out of their commercial puppy store space in St. Peters, supposedly because the owner of the building had seen the story. (The building owner did not respond to requests seeking comment.) The channel aired several follow-up stories, and the Humane Society of the United States subsequently blasted the Schindlers in its October report.
Bonnie Schindler says that she is reluctant to pick up her phone, for fear that the caller will be an angry person accusing her of running a puppy mill or a reporter who will paint a dark image of her in the press.
Frankly, she's sick of it.
"If you want to print something positive, go ahead," she says one day. "If you want to print something negative, just forget that you've talked to me."
Yet while the Schindlers flaunt their years of spotless inspection reports, that appears to be a symptom of a system-wide problem more than of individual excellence. It wasn't only the Schindlers who prospered for years with minimal oversight.
A May 2010 audit from the USDA's inspector general found that the inspection and subsequent enforcement process were ineffective against problem dealers. Fines and penalties were reduced or made nonexistent to avoid breeders exercising their right to a hearing. The breeders, in turn, wrote off any fines as general operating expenses. "Good faith" reductions in penalties were arbitrarily applied. Not enough evidence was gathered to support claims of noncompliance, such as photographs or specific dogs' microchip numbers.
Rickey, the ASPCA inspector, saw what he called a "broken system" firsthand. Because inspectors had to give the breeders a chance to comply with the law and correct their mistakes, animals could be left in unhealthy situations until the inspector returned for an update.
"We have this horrible lag time between when these things are discovered and reported and when they're finally resolved, if they're ever resolved," he says. "And in the process of that, animals suffer and die every day. It's not acceptable; it's not necessary."
The Better Business Bureau of Missouri agreed. It published its own report, "The Puppy Industry in Missouri," in March 2010, concluding that "Missouri is so overwhelmed by the number of puppy sellers that it can't regulate the puppy industry properly."
Both the Missouri Department of Agriculture and the USDA declined comment for this story.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture has only twelve inspectors to oversee some 1,500 licensed breeders and unknowable numbers of unlicensed. Assuming there are around 3,000 total breeders in the state (the most common estimate), each inspector would have to visit 250 facilities per year, one for every single working day. This math, of course, discounts the time it takes to identify unlicensed breeders.
Making matters worse, many licensed breeders require follow-up visits to ensure that noncompliant items are rectified. For example, between September 2009 and their final inspection in July 2010, the Schindlers were visited seven times by state and federal inspectors.
Bonnie Schindler sees the flurry of inspections, some that suddenly noted as many as 50 noncompliant items, as a sign that her business was targeted by puppets of the Humane Society.
"We had no noncompliants for time after time after time," she protests.
Records show, however, that even before the Humane Society call-out and FOX 2's targeted reports, another agency had its eye on the Schindlers: the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
In an October 2009 internal memo from Matt Rold, program coodinator for Animal Care Facilities Act, to his USDA inspection counterparts, Rold urged a crackdown on the Schindlers.
"As we discussed earlier in the week, the conditions at Herman and Bonnie Schindler's kennel are well below the [Animal Welfare Act] and ACFA standards," he writes.
The report that caught Rold's eye had been conducted a few days before. It detailed fourteen pages of violations, while a report dated six months before, and indeed, the previous three years of inspection reports, showed no violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
Those three years of perfect inspections had something in common, other than their spotless nature: The same inspector conducted every one of them.
"I asked [a Schindler employee] if the USDA inspector even went out to the kennel during inspection, and he stated that sometimes he did and sometimes he did not," Rold's memo continues. "I personally feel that any facility holding over 1,600 dogs cannot be adequately inspected by one inspector in one day. I also feel that this situation lends to the 'good old boy' stereotype that both of our agencies work against.
"I believe we can do better."
In the memo, Rold suggests an intensive probe of the Schindlers' facilities, including frequent visits from both the USDA and the Missouri Department of Agriculture — by investigators who would actually inspect the property, not just take a cursory glance and then head inside for coffee with the Schindlers.
"The items cited during Tuesday's inspection were chronic, and I do not believe they manifested themselves within the past few months," the memo continues. "The Schindlers are failing in health, short on employees and long on dogs that didn't sell last summer."
Bonnie Schindler pleaded old age in her seller's statement for the auction. She told the RFT that her recurring cancer prompted the dispersal.
But the state of Missouri says otherwise.
In fact, it appears that a perfect storm of increased inspections (some of them yielding more than 50 noncompliant marks in a single visit), heightened awareness of puppy mills in light of the upcoming Prop B vote, and negative media attention gave the state the impetus to shut the Schindlers down.
A letter from Rold to the auctioneer dated October 21, 2010, outlines procedures for the Schindlers' dispersal auction. Rold writes, "The state will act as custodian, and the sale of the dogs will occur at the state's behest. The sale of the dogs shall be absolute."
That memo, obtained via a public-records request, is being reported for the first time here.
Before the RFT obtained the memo, public perception was that the Schindlers, worried about the impending legislation and getting older every day, sold the business on their own accord.
The Schindlers weren't long on unsold dogs at the auction — and they didn't go for cheap. Before the auction, one rescuer had predicted spending between $50 and $100 per dog, at most. Carolyn Hadley, however, says that the dogs averaged $500 or $600 each, due to the dogs' pedigree and proof as good breeding stock.
The auction itself disgusted Hadley.
"If you've ever been to an antique auction or a junk auction, it was just like that," she says. "They would hold them up in the air and set them on the tables. If they were females and there was the potential that they were bred, they held them up and stretched their arms in the air so that everyone could see their bellies.
"There was a pug that had just delivered three puppies. They wrapped her butt in a towel, and they brought her out and sold her."
Hadley spent more than the $15,000 she had raised online prior to the auction and took home 114 dogs on behalf of various rescues. (Though 114 sounds significant, she had secured 250 commitments to foster dogs, expecting much lower prices.) She was surprised at what good condition the dogs were in.
"They were much more social than we were expecting, and that's not something you can do in a short period of time," she acknowledges. "The dogs overall moved along pretty quickly as far as being able to be placed in homes already because they were at least somewhat social enough to be able to adjust pretty quickly to life on the outside."
Meadows, the shelter-medicine expert, was not surprised that the Schindlers' dogs were in good condition.
"If they came out of a breeding situation, the ultimate goal of the people selling those dogs is to have that puppy act friendly to a potential buyer, right?" he says. "Plus, they do have innate social skills. They're pack animals; they're looking for other members of the pack!"
He was, however, surprised to hear that the Schindlers were shutting down their breeding business. He bought his last two dogs, miniature pinschers, from them. He saw them as good breeders.
But the impending rule changes, he says, will probably lead to more people like the Schindlers closing up shop.
"The good, well-meaning people that follow all the rules, it'll put them out of business," he says. "The people who never paid shit for attention to the rules to begin with still won't."
But just as the battle over Prop B continues into the new year, the Schindlers' breeding legacy may live on, too. Their daughter, Lori Conrad, is also a licensed a dog breeder. And though she chose to whittle down the majority of her breeding stock at the same auction as her parents, she won't say she is absolutely through with breeding.
"This is no longer a battle that I want to be forced to participate in," she says. "I'm not saying I won't participate in it still."
Conrad's brother, Tony Schindler, also holds a current license for a breeding business in Frankford, Missouri.
Though SW Kennel Auctions, which conducted the dispersal of the Schindlers' dogs that weekend in October, refused to disclose any buyer information from the auction, it's safe to say the dogs are all right. Some of them, at least.
At least 200 of the approximately 800 dogs sold that day went to rescue groups, according to an unofficial RFT tally. These pups exchanged their wire-bottomed cages for the plush couches and welcoming laps of foster families and "forever homes."
Others were not as fortunate: Hundreds of dogs went to other breeders.
One of the lucky dogs is Cowboy, an eight-year-old Cocker spaniel. His russet coat is flecked with gray; his muzzle is entirely white. And though he has difficulty climbing onto the couch, his veterinarian attributes that to age, not injury. Cowboy bears no signs that, until just a few months ago, he spent the majority of his life in a cage not much larger than his body. It's not obvious in any way that he's a puppy-mill dog.
It's much more obvious that he never wants to let his owner, 75-year-old Floyd Dunlap, out of his sight.
Dunlap, a retired police officer, attended a St. Louis Senior Dog Project adoption event looking for a Boxer or another large breed. He ended up falling in love with Cowboy.
"I looked at maybe a dozen dogs that day, and when he stuck his foot through the cage to shake hands, I thought, 'Yep, that's the one I'm looking for,'" Dunlap says. Cowboy sits silently on his lap, chin tilted up and big brown eyes fixed on Dunlap's aged face, patiently waiting for a pat on the head.
Whether Prop B — which Dunlap calls "that law" — survives the state legislature's intervention, whether the Schindlers' offspring continue their family's legacy of large-scale dog breeding, Dunlap and Cowboy seem content to live quietly together in south St. Louis. Just two retired guys keeping each other company.
Dunlap is uninterested in hearing more about the place his dog came from. He's more interested in buying doggy steps to help Cowboy get onto the couch or finding a dog-size cowboy hat for the dog he calls "the new sheriff in town."
"That part of his life is over with," he says of Cowboy's time with the Schindlers. "And those people are done."